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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 1, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 40
Some planned (and unplanned) excitement at SSO
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Some planned (and unplanned) excitement at SSO

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony
with Yefim Bronfman
September 25
Benaroya Hall


The planned part of this concert began with a stunning work by Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943). His long title was The Poet's Hour Soliloquy for violin and strings, 'Reflections on Thoreau.' It was a world premiere, dedicated to Gerard Schwarz. Maria Larionoff, SSO concertmaster, displayed unerring technique and musicianship in a work that required double stops or soft harmonics more often than not. The reflective piece showed great skill both in structure and orchestration. Its attractive nature made me wish to hear it again.

Because of a dreadful Brahms Fourth Symphony under conductor Gerard Schwarz a couple years ago, I almost dreaded this concert. But I couldn't miss pianist Yefim Bronfman playing the Prokofiev 'Piano Concerto No. 2,' and so there we were, with Schwarz and the SSO launching into the Brahms Third. Imagine my surprise when an absolutely lovely performance washed over us.

I have long maintained that Schwarz can do anything well if he's really interested in doing so. Witness the superb Beethoven 'Eroica' he gave us before taking the players to Carnegie Hall. Usually I hate his Beethoven (having learned to avoid the perennial Beethoven Ninth on New Year's Eve), but he wasn't about to present a subpar 'Eroica' to the critics in his old home town. What I forgot this time was that he and the SSO had just recorded all four Brahms symphonies. Obviously Schwarz had given these some extra TLC, for every phrase was molded and caressed. Balances were mostly fine, and everything was made expressive by judicious dynamics and appropriate pacing. Each movement had character and an attractive Brahmsian warmth. (I have never heard Schwarz allow the double basses to sing out so impressively as here.)

Something that usually interests Schwarz - and for which he is even famous - is neglected American music. Thus, we heard a compelling case made for Arthur Foote's 'Francesca da Rimini,' composed in 1882-3. The piece started out sounding classically structured, but soon loosened up into a more romantic journey through tonalities and orchestral colors not unlike Brahms. It was not, I think, particularly memorable but certainly worthy of being heard.

The Foote was originally planned for the second item on the menu, but Principal clarinetist Christopher Sereque had taken the music home to practice and had forgotten to bring it back! Schwarz applauded his industry, explained that Sereque's home was not far from Benaroya Hall, and declared that we would hear the Foote after intermission, just before the Prokofiev.

The effect of this little change could not have been more dramatic. A program is like a meal, with one's palette being led with some care from one flavor to another. In this unplanned case, we jumped from the super-tonal, lush harmonies of Arthur Foote into a totally different world: the wild atonality and rhythms of Prokofiev's 'Piano Concerto No. 2.' Even someone familiar and comfortable with Prokofiev's musical language could not be but jolted by the sudden shift. I found the shock exciting and fun ... much more so than if we had confronted the concerto after an intermission (as originally programmed).

In a work requiring this level of energy, power, and extreme technical facility, one could not do better than Yefim Bronfman. He doesn't look the part. A big blob of a man in his 50s with a huge, fleshy face, he seemed at first sight like the antithesis of an athlete. Yet only a highly conditioned athlete could possess the stamina and power of this musician. We all knew at the close that we had shared a phenomenal experience. One reviewer appropriately remarked that it was amazing that he didn't have a finger fall off!

To thus remark on this performance should not be taken to mean it was in any way less than musical. Within the barrage of notes in even the most virtuosic passages, the important notes stood out as perfectly articulated and expressive. The quieter passages were full of repose and relief. I cannot imagine a more effective performance. The players of the SSO were right up there with the soloist, and Schwarz was the perfect partner.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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